Every so often, once every 10 or 15 years maybe, there's a nightclub show as special as the Elvis Costello performance Thursday at the Great American Music Hall. Maybe not even that often.
Costello has such a history with San Francisco, it's not surprising that he came here to give this one-time-only performance of his entire first album, with most of the same musicians playing the songs in the same order as on the record 30 years ago.
"We're turning the record over," he said when he reached "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," the song that led off side 2 of his 1977 classic, My Aim Is True.
Costello, whose ambitious artistic agenda in recent years has cut across rock, pop, jazz and classical boundaries, doesn't usually engage in such self-celebration, but he did this for a friend. Austin de Lone is a highly regarded Mill Valley keyboard player whom Costello has known since he first came to the States. De Lone's son, Richard, suffers from Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare, incurable disease that leaves victims perpetually starving. Revenue from the two sold-out shows commenced fundraising for the Richard de Lone Special Housing Project.
Not only did Costello, 53, perform My Aim Is True song by song, making a strong case for the album as one of the great premieres in rock history, but he followed the 50-minute performance of the album with another 50 minutes of songs he wrote around the same time, one unknown gem after another. It was a daring, intimate look deep into Costello's songwriting notebooks that will undoubtedly never be repeated.
Backing him onstage were three members of Clover, a long-defunct Marin County rock group that accompanied Costello on the original recording sessions and never played with him again. Guitarist John McFee judiciously decorated the buoyant, chugging sound of the band. The tightly focused songs allowed for only a couple of brief guitar breaks, but McFee, who has played with the Doobie Brothers since 1981, tucked shimmering little accents around the end of verses throughout the show. Keyboardist Sean Hopper, who became a founding member of Huey Lewis and the News after Clover broke up in 1978, joined Clover bassist John Ciambotti, who worked for a time with Lucinda Williams and currently is a chiropractor in Southern California.
Pete Thomas of Costello's longtime band the Attractions replaced Clover drummer Mickey Shine, although Costello acknowledged Shine during the show. Clover's two vocalists were not involved in the My Aim Is True sessions, so the reunion also was absent Nashville songwriter Alex Call and Huey Lewis, who called himself Huey Louis when he belonged to Clover.
In between performing the My Aim Is True songs, Costello talked about making the album. "It was never conceived as a record," he said. "It was a bunch of demos of songs for (British guitarist) Dave Edmunds to cover."
He remembered spending the night in the crummy London studio where the record was made and being told to sleep with the lights turned on to keep the rats away. He said he woke up sometime in the night with the lights off and "the sound of rustling."
After charging through the My Aim Is True tunes, Costello brought out an acoustic guitar and, explaining he decided to do only songs he wrote in 1977, played a half dozen that few in the crowd had ever heard. He admitted to salvaging spare parts from some of these unpublished early efforts, like "Imagination" or "Blue Minute," for later songs. Each of the tunes would have fit comfortably on the album. "I Don't Want to Go Home" had the bluff and bite. "Cheap Reward" snarled properly.
With the band back behind him, McFee on pedal steel, Costello brought out the secret country and western flavor of the sessions. "My manager used to say, 'Journalist coming on the tour bus — hide the George Jones tapes,' " said Costello, who eventually recorded his song "Stranger in My House" with Jones.
Costello even sang a Clover song, "Mr. Moon," from the band's 1971 second album, Forty-Niner. Costello remembered the store in London where he bought the record.
"The mystique of this area and all the music coming out of it was very great to me," he said. "One of the groups we mythologized most was Clover."
It's a tribute to Costello's restless creativity that in only the past couple of years he has passed through town with four bands. He played Oakland's Paramount Theatre with the Attractions, giving a textbook lesson in rock quartet dynamics. He returned to the Paramount with New Orleans songwriter Allen Toussaint and Toussaint's large band. He did last year's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival with a thrown-together ensemble that included dieselbilly guitarist Bill Kirchen and de Lone, who also gave a brief opening duo performance Thursday.
It was a rare and open night — as open as the songbooks on the music stands — another brilliant performance from the redoubtable Mr. Costello.